During a long lazy night driving along Highway 5, a lonely stretch of West Coast highway that runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean and extends from Canada to Mexico, Nels Cline got a cell phone call from destiny.
He was driving back home from the Bay Area. It was 2 a.m., and he had been touring and recording tracks with several bands for nearly two weeks.
“Trying to make a living was getting more and more difficult,” Cline says. “Not (difficult) to work, but to make any money.”
While driving, Cline was phoned by Carla Bozulich (who played in Geraldine Fibbers with Cline), his then-roommate. She told him Jeff Tweedy, the lead singer of Wilco, one of the most influential American Rock bands, had called looking for him.
“(Tweedy) was trying to see if she would be upset if he called me,” Cline says. Tweedy was interested in having Cline replace lead guitarist Leroy Bach in Wilco’s new lineup.
“She said ‘Please call Nels,’ ” he continues. “She knew I was really struggling in my life to make ends meet.”
A reinvigorated Wilco was born from the phone call that followed. Tweedy soon went into treatment for painkiller addiction only to reemerge to a new lineup for the band’s following record and tour, with the adventurous Cline at the helm with his axe.
While Cline has spent most of life making music, being a centerpiece in what he calls a “legendary” Rock band hadn’t occurred to him.
“The reason I play with (Wilco) now is because (drummer) Glen Kotche and Jeff Tweedy thought to ask me to, he says. “It was never on the horizon line for me. One doesn’t think of things like that. I was just doing all kinds of improvised music and Jazz-related music, still playing on and off with Mike Watt and Carla Bozulich.
“I didn’t see it coming at all."
Five years later, Wilco — still with the same lineup since Tweedy came out of treatment — continues to make widely acclaimed records and draw behemoth crowds at shows, a testament to this onetime struggling band choosing a one-time struggling artist to play with them.
“Jeff really got healthy and the band was very functional,” he says. “It was a real fresh start.”
Cline made his first appearance as Wilco’s lead guitarist on the 2005 concert album, Kicking Television: Live in Chicago. He has since played on 2007’s Sky Blue Sky and this new Wilco (The Album).
While Cline had been struggling financially before Tweedy asked him to join the band, he was not wanting for work. Cline had one the most prolific résumés of anyone recording today. He’s recorded or contributed to more than 150 records and he’s collaborated with legendary musical institutions, such as Sonic Youth and Willie Nelson.
However, Cline is losing track of his tracks. While he has a rough idea of how many albums he’s recorded, the actual number is hazy.
“My discography on my Web site is about four years out of date,” Cline says. He says that 150 sounds right, but there’s room for error. “There’s records that I do that I forget I’ve done.”
Extensive touring and incessant recording schedules sometimes keep Cline from being fully aware of his complete body of work.
“I’m just kind of moving … from place to place and sometimes I do things with friends or friends of friends and they end up coming out so much later and I don’t hear about them,” Cline says.
Joining Wilco ostensibly set up off a chain of favorable attention for Cline’s other music projects. While struggling to stay afloat before, many of his projects began flourishing.
He attests that part of the reason he had difficulties making a living was in part because of the improvisational avant garde music he played (and still plays).
“Living in California and trying to do creative improvised music is already a dilemma,” Cline says. “The country in general doesn’t really support that kind of music, at least not monetarily.”
Now when Cline is not touring and recording with the band, he’s knee-deep in those same projects, including The Nels Cline Singers and The Nels Cline Trio.
“Whenever Wilco stops doing something I always end up doing something else,” he says.
In addition to Wilco (The Album), Cline also recorded Coward under his own name, finished recording another album with the Nels Cline Singers and contributed to several other projects in 2009 alone. He’s ardently keeping up with is own pace.
As a salient recognition of his prolific efforts in the industry, Cline was chosen by Rolling Stone as one of the “Top 20 New Guitar Gods” of 2007. He was dubbed “The Avant Romantic,” a title that strikes him as “strangely perceptive” and makes him realize his place in the sonic amalgam.
“It is kind of how I see my role in general, not just in Wilco,” he says. “I do have an emotional base to what I do that does have something specifically to do with romanticism.”
“The guitar (god) thing … whatever,” he says humbly.
WILCO plays the Aronoff Center Friday with The Heartless Bastards. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.